In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I am a moody, bookish teenager living in a small town on the coast. Ten miles offshore, the Isles of Shoals seem to hover, whispering of mystery, a promise unfulfilled, a gift forever withheld. In fact, the islands are easily reached by boat in an hour, and the one time I went there it was bleak and cold and a seagull swooped down with its sharp yellow beak and stole my sandwich. I prefer to regard them from the shore, imagining a paradise just beyond my reach.
My penchant for fantasy stems from the fearful conviction that even the smallest action in the real world is fraught with danger. It is like living on a tiny atoll among shark-infested waters — a state of anxious isolation that I am desperate to escape. Already, I crave the oblivion of alcohol and drugs, which, paradoxically, will isolate me even further. I do not yet have a name for this craving, nor do I know that my loneliness, my terror of other people, my desire to escape all flow from alcoholism, which has run like slow poison through both sides of my family for generations.
In my last two years of high school, I get drunk every weekend, smoke pot incessantly, and drop acid every chance I get. I have slept with boys, but I have never had a real boyfriend. Graduation night, a friend introduces me to Mitch, a boy from Massachusetts. Mitch is a carpenter, but his true calling is surfing. The ends of his hair are sun-bleached, his nose is always peeling, and he carries an ever-present board under his arm like a mutant flipper, all of which I find achingly attractive. Within weeks, we are inseparable. We drive around in his brother’s green MG, listening to Rod Stewart, Neil Young, Cream. At his rented beach cottage, with its flimsy towels and sandy linoleum floors, we cook Rice-a-Roni and Pillsbury biscuits. In the back pocket of my jeans, I carry a bottle of Silk of Intimate, a perfume that looks like melted pearls, with which I drench my wrists and neck.
Mitch seems to understand my notion of some plane other than the one we live in, a parallel universe of peace and harmony. We talk haltingly about this, though we have neither a name for it nor words with which to describe it. We sense that there is something between us — something sacred, huge — that is part of a transcendent whole. One afternoon, after we have been dating a couple of months, we are walking along the beach, and Mitch puts a name to it: love. We’re in love! The word spoken aloud is blinding, explosive. We tremble in its presence, walk around in circles, shaking our heads and laughing. We are shell-shocked, dazed at our good fortune.
In a friend’s workshop, Mitch builds us a bed frame of rough pine planks. Lying in that bed, I memorize him, trace his contours like a map, study his face as if it were some ancient text that holds the secrets of the universe. If they lined up a million sets of hands, I tell him, I’d know which ones were yours. I lick his eyelids, his neck, the hollow above his collarbone. He tastes, always, of salt.
This perfection is marred by one small stain. For me, our love — and my other passion, literature, which I feel only enhances, ennobles, confirms our love — is everything, but for Mitch there is surfing, too. He and his friends speak a language I do not understand: swells, breaks, some mysterious place they call “outside.” When the waves are up, they drop everything, grab their boards, and head to the beach like lemmings. I try my best to fit into the surfing culture. I watch as Mitch shows me the best way to wax a board, secretly wishing I were reading. I wear a choker of puka shells, feeling like Eleanor Roosevelt gotten up as a hula girl. I slather myself with Hawaiian Tropic, then lie rigid in the sun feeling guilty for lounging around smelling like a coconut while other, more deserving people are working. The stomachs of the other surfers’ girlfriends are tan, taut, and undulating. Mine, warily exposed between the top and bottom halves of a pink-and-blue two-piece, is whiter than my arms and legs and has the shadow of a beer belly.
I drink, but so does Mitch. Everyone we know drinks. I cannot yet see that, for Mitch and most of our friends, drinking is an adjunct to life, not life itself; an expendable pleasure, not a necessity they are willing to pay for with the DUIs, hangovers, and morning-after horror stories that have become a fact of my life. For me, drinking is not social; it is pharmacological, the relief I crave for my low-level paranoia and overwrought nerves. When Mitch gathers up his gear and bolts for the beach, my shoulders slump, my face sags, and I feel as if I will die from being so cruelly abandoned. But then it gets dark or the waves turn mushy, and he comes back, and it’s time to start drinking again. Everything is miraculously transformed. With Mitch in my arms, Gasoline Alley on the stereo, and a river of Almadén Mountain White Chablis coursing through my bloodstream, the familiar feeling of peace descends, filling the void that was my miserable, lonely life up until now. Eighteen years old and my life is mapped out, a path of joy stretching all the way to the horizon.
I have dropped out of college for a semester and quit my waitressing job so that I can participate more fully in Mitch’s surfing, a part of his life from which I am usually absent. From our rented white stucco house, a dusty trail leads down to a sweep of turquoise ocean. Cocks crow at dawn, the air is thick with the smell of frying peppers, and the heat presses down like a hand. We pick lemons from the tree in the yard and squeeze them over tins of sardines. At dusk, we walk to the store and buy hard, dry white rolls, a hunk of orange cheese, and shots of 151 rum, which we drink outside on the patio.
Alcohol is no longer the reliable elixir it was at first: instead of assuaging my innate terror, it is beginning to make it worse. The rum burns like gasoline and the sun sets in a fiery blaze, flickering ominously near the edges. A restaurant farther down the beach specializes in conch fritters, but every time we go they are closed or sold out or nobody has caught any conch that day.
Rincón is a mecca for wave-worshipers, its beaches crawling with surfers — with their golden tans, their zinc-covered noses, their girlfriends who sit around stringing African beads or cleaning stemmy wads of pot. Mitch is in heaven, but I am focused on the cockroaches in the shower, the overfriendly local men, the endless hours of unstructured time. Every morning he goes surfing with his cronies, and I set off by myself for another portion of the beach with a towel and a book. The sun bludgeons me and the waves foam in, hissing on the sand like snakes. There is something sinister in the air: no sky should be this clear, no water this warm. Although I am beginning to see that my paranoia may be connected to the fact that I drink until I black out every night and spend every day in the grip of a vicious hangover, it does not occur to me to cut back or stop.
When the sun gets so bright it hurts my eyes to read, I wade around in chest-high pools of sea water and pluck shells — coral pink, orange, banana yellow — from the sand. I am mesmerized by the variety of striations, ridges, and whorls, astounded that they are free for the taking. I arrange them in rows by color on my towel and try to decide whether they are more beautiful vividly wet or dried by the sun, when their colors become subtler, the pinks fading to rose, the oranges and yellows growing paler, sadder, more delicate. I cup one in my hand, an ivory scallop with lavender stripes, and will a miniature Venus to rise from it, a tiny friend with streaming golden hair, flowers fluted around her head, one elegant hand shielding her breasts.
When I am not drinking or lying on the beach, I am reading on the terrace. Due to the steady stream of Mitch’s surfing buddies in and out, my presence there frequently gives rise to one of those awkward, depressing exchanges every die-hard book-lover dreads: What are you reading? Something by this guy Flaubert. Who’s Flaubert? Or, Who’s Jane Austen?
“Who’s Dostoyevsky?” asks Greg, a bronzed, green-eyed hunk from South Carolina who is so ridiculously good-looking it is like sitting on the terrace across from a 3-D GQ photo.
“This Russian guy who had epilepsy and almost got killed by a firing squad but was sent to Siberia instead.”
“What’s it about?”
“Um, this guy who kills an old lady because he doesn’t want to have to take money from his mother and sister, sort of like he was so bad he was good.”
Long, dead pause.
“Yeah,” Greg says, “books are great,” and gives a twenty-minute synopsis of Carrie.
My days of solitude leave me stiff and uncommunicative. By the end of the month, I am collapsing under the weight of my own alienation and loneliness. Mitch and I eat fish and rice at mom-and-pop stands, watch cockfights, and take walks on the beach, but it feels increasingly empty, and I drink even more than usual to fill up the emptiness. Mitch has decided to stay on a couple of extra weeks, but I am going home as scheduled. For the first time in more than three years, I am relieved to think of us being apart.
The night before I leave, I toss back a few shots of rum at home, softening my perpetual sense of impending doom with the alcohol’s rancid warmth. Later, we walk down the hill to a thatched-roof outdoor bar on the beach. While the Beach Boys croon “God Only Knows“ from a tape deck, I swill Cuba libres, and we talk about how much we will miss each other. I wonder if Mitch is as ambivalent and confused as I am, but I don’t ask; I no longer share with him my every thought.
After a while, Greg, ridiculously good-looking Greg, materializes and settles in at our table. We take turns buying rounds, and the drinks make us dreamy and voluble. Mitch talks about building a house overlooking the ocean. Greg muses about opening a surf shop. Studying the blond stubble on Greg’s jaw line, the swell of his biceps, I feel the stirrings of a new-found affection for Rincón. The moon hangs low over the water, and a scented breeze rolls in with the waves, things I have never much noticed before. “It’s so gorgeous here!” I say, slurring my words, and I impulsively divulge to Greg the dream I keep locked away in the deepest recesses of my heart, the dream only Mitch knows, the dream I think about constantly but never act on: I want to be a writer.
I’m ready to stay up all night, but Mitch isn’t feeling well. “I’ll walk her home,” Greg offers, and Mitch heads back, and there is more rum, more sweet, deep, swirling talk. The hours pass in a blur; everyone has left but us. Finally, the music stops, they turn out the little Christmas lights that twinkle along the driftwood bar, and we leave the silvery black ocean behind and lurch up the hill, singing. When Greg stops in the middle of the road and kisses me, I feel the twitchy, doomed thrill of a convict being strapped into the electric chair. We go to his cottage, where I stay till dawn. Even the rum cannot drown out the knowledge of the barrier I am crossing. I have never disappeared like this, never cheated, never not come home at night.
When I stumble in the next morning, Mitch is frantic.
“Where have you been?” he yells. “I almost called the police.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, hugging him tight. “I was so wasted I ended up sleeping on the beach.”
It is a measure of how much I drink that this is received as a valid excuse. Mitch takes a cab with me to the airport, but my betrayal squirms between us, and I am on the verge of throwing up.
On the flight back to Boston, I wear a peasant blouse with pink flowers embroidered on the shoulders. On my lap, I cradle a wrinkled paper bag full of shells.
I am on shaky ground, and Mitch is not exactly the soul of emotional health, either. He cuts short a trip to Baja after he has a quasi nervous breakdown because he misses me so much. When his brother and I pick him up at the airport, he is palsied and pale, like a traumatized war veteran. We go mountain climbing with my father and brothers, and, when we reach the summit, Mitch takes my father aside and confides that he feels the urge to jump. One afternoon, I come home from my waitressing job to find him kneeling in front of the stove, his head inside the lit oven.
“What’s wrong?” I ask, cradling him in my arms. He doesn’t know, can’t articulate it, thinks it might have something to do with his father. I review what I know of his father but can think of nothing out of the ordinary. He drinks like a fish, of course, downing highball glasses of straight VO in one gulp, but who doesn’t? He is constantly hung over and losing jobs and depressed, but who isn’t?
Then one afternoon we are driving along the beach road when Mitch confesses he has slept with someone else, a girl I knew from high school, a strapping, blond beauty, a surfer. She is everything I am not. In the space of ten seconds, all the light leaches out of the world. It is like being kicked in the stomach; I feel as if I will never catch my breath again.
He drops me off at my parents’ house. They are on vacation, and I am supposed to be baby-sitting my eight-year-old sister, Meredith. I lead her to the cupboard underneath the kitchen counter. The shelf is lined with newspaper, and the vodka is way in the back, behind the grapefruit squeezer and the pressure cooker. I show her how to put in a few cubes of ice, fill the glass three-quarters of the way with vodka, and top it off with tomato juice. “But mostly vodka,” I repeat, and then I go upstairs and crawl into my parents’ bed. When I come to, Meredith’s brown eyes are watching me anxiously. Her head is not much higher than the bed. She holds out a fresh Bloody Mary. “I could put a little salt and pepper on top,” she says. “Would you like that?”
I stay drunk for three months. I stop working, stop going to school, stop eating, and lose fifteen pounds. That last, fateful night in Rincón gnaws at me constantly, and the fact that I can’t quite get the memory of Greg — those gorgeous arms, those long, hot hours in bed — out of my mind makes me feel even more guilty. It doesn’t matter that Mitch doesn’t know; deep in my heart, I’m sure his betrayal is the price for my treachery.
Mitch and I patch things up and limp along for another year or so, but it is never any good again. “You are really lucky in one way, because you always seem to be able to ignore everything else but me,” he writes in a letter from Hawaii — where he’s gone, of course, to surf. “You are hurt when you don’t have that one thing,” (meaning him), “but I can’t be happy without doing things on my own, too.”
This is the death knell. There is something wrong with me, some perverse flaw that turns every good thing sour. A few months after we break up, I hear through the grapevine that he has married someone else.
I do not know it then, of course, but I will be alone for the next fifteen years — fifteen years saturated with the smell of ground-in cigarette smoke and ammonia-drenched bathroom floors and soiled pillows on strangers’ beds.
When I finally stop drinking, I will undertake a long, faltering search for meaning and convert to Catholicism. I will have no trouble grasping the concept of the Fall, the desperate, slavering compulsion to return to an Eden from which, paradoxically, incomprehensibly, one is continually expelling oneself. I will fall in love for the second time and get married. I used to think I would never again love anyone the way I loved Mitch, and I was right. You only undergo that particular rite of purification once. Afterward, you have learned the hard lesson that no mere human being can fix what is wrong with you.
Every so often, I will hear bits and pieces of news about Mitch: he’s moved to California; he’s had a daughter; he’s gotten rich. Sometimes, thinking about his suicidal leanings, his father’s drinking, the way alcoholics and people from alcoholic homes are unconsciously drawn to each other like magnets, I will wonder whether things might have turned out differently if we’d understood the connections, seen how badly we needed help. For a long time I will fantasize about running into him somewhere and having an if-I’d-only-known-then-what-I-know-now chat. Finally, I will resign myself to the fact that we will never see each other again and that it is probably just as well.
There will be years when I hardly think of him, but then, I won’t have to think of him because he will have incorporated himself into my bones and blood. I will still remember him every year on his birthday, will still feel a pang every time I drive by that spot on the beach where he first said he loved me, will still cry two decades later when I hear “Mandolin Wind” in a Hollywood coffeehouse. Eventually, the wound will heal, all the pain and all the wild, self-annihilating joy distilled to the shadow of an image whose details become more blurred with every passing year. But I do not know any of this yet. I only know that, for a long time, I feel as if I am drowning.
One of my oldest friends, whom I have known since I was thirteen, is dying of cirrhosis. I leave my husband in LA and fly to Boston, where I drive directly to the hospital. My friend’s skin looks green, his legs and belly bloated. “Remember the time we were hitchhiking back from Montreal and my feet were frozen and we finally got a ride in that old, unheated van?” I ask him. “Remember how you made me take my boots off and held my feet against your bare chest to thaw them out?” He tries to answer — his eyes and scrabbling lips frantic — but I can’t understand a word. Finally, he gives up. I sit by his bed, and we hold hands and doze while the heavy snow falls like flakes of cement outside the window. When I come again the following day, he has just died. They cover his face with a sheet and wheel him to the elevator. As the doors close, the last thing I see is his tangled hair on the white pillow.
The night of the funeral, I am lying on the couch at my parents’ house watching television with Meredith and a couple of my brothers. There is a knock at the door; my father answers it, and a voice that I haven’t heard in twenty years says, “Hi, Mr. King.”
“Is that Mitch?” I yell, racing into the kitchen.
“I heard about Michael,” he says, standing in front of the stove. “I thought you might be here.”
I throw my arms around him as if he has risen from the dead, and we all crowd into the kitchen, leaning against the counters, to gawk. He is trim, almost too trim. He has the same crinkles in the corners of his blue-green eyes, the same head-thrown-back laugh. I can hardly believe, after all this time, that he is here in the flesh, intact, alive — the person who, for five years, knew me better than anyone else on earth.
While my mother passes around cheese and crackers, I ply him with questions. He says the last two years have been difficult: he got divorced, lost everything, moved back to the Maine coast. He is framing houses. He still surfs. His daughter is seventeen. “Pulling the same stuff Heather and I did,” he says to my mother. “Shacking up with her boyfriend.” His mother died a year ago, and Mitch delivered the eulogy. He has become a Christian and remarried. He and his new wife belong to a church with an elaborate name I do not quite catch, something with the words abundant and house and light in it. I am so excited to see him that it is half an hour before I realize that he hasn’t asked me a single question, and another fifteen minutes before I notice that he keeps mentioning Satan.
“I stopped drinking,” I offer, trying to change the subject.
Mitch fixes me with a penetrating stare and replies, “Ah, but the problem was never drinking. The problem was evil.”
“It’s funny,” I try again with a hollow chuckle. “You’ve become a Protestant and I’ve become a Catholic.”
“Catholic? Sheer idolatry!”
My father comes to the rescue, pointing out that the apple trees Mitch planted back when we were dating are still growing at the edge of the back yard. “Picked five bushels last year,” Dad reports proudly. “We made some nice pies.”
“Do you spray?” Mitch asks. And while they discuss the pros and cons of DDT, and Meredith reminds him of the clambake we had once in the back yard, and my brothers reminisce about the ’66 Falcon he used to drive, I think of all the things that are going to remain unsaid. I’d always imagined, if I ever saw Mitch again, hurling myself at his feet and keening, Wasn’t it wonderful? Wasn’t it terrible? Didn’t it fuck you up beyond all belief? Instead, we have become strangers standing on opposite shores of a gulf I have no idea how to bridge.
“I guess I should get moving,” he says finally. “My dog is outside in the truck.” I think of Bernie, the slobbering Saint Bernard, Mitch’s family dog: Is he still . . . ?
“No,” Mitch says, “we put him away years ago.”
We exchange addresses, and I see him to the door. There is so much I want to tell him. I want to thank him, to bless him, to tell him that I have carried him with me — the ocean, the music — wherever I have been. But I don’t say anything except, “Take really good care. It was great to see you.” I kiss him on the neck and he stiffens a little, perhaps catching a whiff of Satan on the cool night air.
I send him and his wife a Christmas card, but he never answers.
My life is full of blessings now. I have been sober for ten years, married to a wonderful, extremely funny man for eight, and writing for five. Everything has changed — and nothing has. I am still plagued by the same nervous anxiety I had as a teenager, still tend to view my life as a nuisance I have to get through so that I can curl up in a corner and read: Tolstoy, Dickinson, St. John of the Cross; books about inner journeys, books about the desert, books about prayer. I am still, in many ways, lonely.
For months after I saw Mitch, I was numb with shock, thinking him a fundamentalist fanatic. But eventually I saw that, though I didn’t use the same language he did or think in quite the same way, I, too, had come to believe in evil, and that sex is holy and love a terrible power that burns like a flame. Whether it was the dark current of alcoholism or a thirst for God or sheer animal lust that had drawn us together, it was no coincidence that we’d been attracted to each other, and no accident that, in middle age, we had both ended up in church. Perhaps the amazing thing was not how much we had changed, but how much we had stayed the same, the outlines of our younger selves filling in like photographic images beneath the watery shimmer of developing fluid: Mitch, a wild-eyed Old Testament prophet, Isaiah in a wet suit; me the perpetual observer, clothed in black, scanning the horizon for the Second Coming.
The details of his picture, though, are starting to fade. I can no longer conjure up his face, can barely remember what his voice sounded like, have forgotten the shape of his hands. Even the relics I tried so hard to preserve are disappearing like a receding tide: the bed Mitch made converted by my husband to kindling, the hundred-pound slab of oak Mitch found in an old lumber mill, which I’d used as a table for years, left behind when my husband and I moved from Boston to LA.
All that remains are the shells from Rincón, in their glass bowl on a shelf in the hallway. I have carried them around with me all these years without thinking about it, and I cannot remember the last time I really looked at them. They are faded now, the colors muted, like a head of hair gone gray. I thought I had buried every last feeling, but when I pick one up — an ivory scallop with lavender stripes — and touch it to my tongue, an electric thrill jolts through me, as if I had licked a live wire. It still tastes, ever so faintly, of salt.